“I laugh out loud when (my agent) relays the news, loving the Yankees’ interest and shaking my head in disbelief that George Steinbrenner, billionaire owner of the New York Yankees, has taken it upon himself to endure lunch at a burger joint and check me out in person. THIS is an owner who gives a shit. THIS is why the Yankees are THE YANKEES. Granted, a hundred-million-dollar payroll can make a contender out of any team, but there’s more going on here. For all his faults, you can’t deny that George Steinbrenner, the man, not just the wallet, is a tangible, positive factor in the Yankees domination of baseball.”
-David Wells, Perfect I’m Not
Most of my friends met me during my years in Chicago, and to a person, many of them swear they can’t see me being the angry, distrustful, depressed, guarded, sour kid who once chased off potential friendships out of fear. Others might today say they see the occasional trace of that old person but can’t imagine me being the full-blown critter in his reverse glory. Most of them also know that I credit my interest in baseball as part of how I was able to change my character. It created a focal point in my baseball-crazed junior college, so when stuck in conversation, it became one of our go-to topics. I got into baseball during the 2000 season, during the tail end of the Yankee dynasty of the 90’s, and in a year which concluded in a subway World Series between the Mets and Yankees.
By all means, I’m a Mets fan who happens to not cheer for the Mets. All the circumstances I was born into should have tattooed “Mets” onto every available space of my body when I was launched into this world. I’m an underdog as a person, originally born into the working class in one of the poorest cities in the United States. My parents proudly proclaim the Mets as their own team, and it was the Mets who dominated the New York baseball scene in the 80’s. As a baseball fan, I prefer the National League’s style of play. As a team, the Mets are more privy to rolling out the red carpet to the common man than the stoic, corporate, stuck-in-their-ways Yankees. So it comes across as very unusual to any sports-minded friends that I chose the Yankees over the Mets when I began watching baseball. (I rectified this mistake upon my move to Chicago when I chose to support the White Sox over the Cubs, who are basically the Yankees without the titles.) But understand that when I began watching baseball during that 2000 season, the robot drone version of the Yankees wasn’t the team I was seeing, at all.
Often forgotten about those dynastic Yankee teams was that their core was a cohesive, tough, punchy unit which the team had raised and promoted through their farm system. They were a team of underdogs themselves, either raised on the Yankee farm or cast off from other teams for bad play or behavioral problems, and led by a manager who was doubted from the start and expected to become George Steinbrenner’s latest casualty. No one, least of all Yankee fans, expected them to win, and if anything they were expected to go into a severe regression after all the progress they had made in the previous couple of years through Don Mattingly and Buck Showalter. When I began tuning into ballgames regularly, the Yankees weren’t winning because of George’s payroll; they had the best, most cohesive, and most exciting team in the league. Their talent was merely the help and not the entire lineup, and their lineup didn’t believe in no-win situations. The Yankees weren’t always the best team in the league, but they were an emotional squad that left everything they had out on the field. Those Yankees were Andy Pettitte calmly confusing opposing batters and David Wells attacking with the ferocity of an angry grizzly bear. They were Jason Giambi punishing pitchers who dared throw inside while Derek Jeter made every big play that needed making; Jorge Posada calling the best-pitched games in the league and Alfonso Soriano morphing into a human light whip and Bernie Williams patrolling the outfield like a rottweiler. Mariano Rivera slamming the door against star batters who only went to the box out of obligation: Just go up and strike out so they can get drunk before the bars close, it’s not like Mo is going to give them a chance.
I loved watching the team from the 2000 title to the first few years afterward, and I suffered through the disappointments: The weird bloop against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, the implosion against the Los Angeles Angels in 2002, the axel wear-out against the Florida Marlins in 2003, and (god, this is so painful that my fingers hurt typing it out) that dumbfounding, godawful, embarrassing, nightmarish meltdown against the Boston Red Sox in 2004. But still, I loved those Yankee teams – the 2003 Yankees in particular have a special piece of my heart, and I’ll always look at them as the grand finale of the dynasty. The team won plenty afterward, and I always cheered them on, through their beating at Detroit in 2006 to screaming at my screen during the 2009 title whenever Girardi played Phil Coke. Still, it’s that 2003 Pennant which stands as the last testament to true Yankee greatness. That team could have beat the hell out of the decade’s later Yankee teams, including the 2009 team. They would barely have broken a sweat doing it, too.
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Bronx Bombers, but the teams they’re fielding now are difficult to take. New York’s current ace, CC Sabathia, is one of the most boring players in the league. I could conclusively disprove Saint Augustine’s proofs of God in three languages between each and every one of his pitches. I was embarrassed by the Red Sox meltdown in 2004, but the Yankees managed to top that a couple of years later when they yanked Roger Clemens out of his 783rd retirement. That they were so desperate for pitching help said everything. Their games are now crawling by at the pace of a snail swimming through a tar lake. I’m an adult. I have things I would prefer to be doing rather than watch the Yankees play a three-and-a-half hour marathon that doesn’t even go into extra innings. That seems to be the length of a normal, everyday game these days when I happen to watch, and it’s inexcusable. It’s also not likely to be fixed anytime soon, not with a commissioner who apparently believes his league’s biggest problem is that the playoffs don’t run long enough. I’m flipping on Mets games more often now whenever I need a baseball fix. While the Mets aren’t threatening to replace the Yankees, they play baseball in lieu of standing there scratching their asses, even though Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes both walked out the team’s front door.
The most interesting aspect of the Yankees’ morph into robot automatons in my sports viewing has been the way its affected my view of the NBA. The NBA is a league I only began paying attention to because I wanted to support Damone Brown, the bigshot jock from my high school who led the Seneca VHS basketball team to an undefeated 1997 championship season. After a spectacular career at Syracuse, Damone was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the league’s most storied teams. In 2003, I watched the entirety of the NBA Finals and decided there was no way I was ever going to fully understand basketball. That was a slow, dreadful series between the New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs, who won it in six games. That fifth game stands among my all-time nadirs of sports-watching, and the only reason I kept tuning into the league after seeing it was to try to get any word on Damone’s career.
Since Damone was an inconspicuous player who put up career grand totals of 108 points in the only 39 games he played in, I had no idea he was out of the league by 2005, so I continued to watch. Fortunately, the 2003 Finals turned out to be a fluke perpetrated by the NBA version of hockey’s New Jersey Devils (the boring, BORING Spurs, who have since topped my list of basketball teams I hate). I became more of a casual watcher, but as the Yankees got more boring, I started watching more basketball. Soon I found myself becoming more invested in the outcomes of certain games, from supporting the Boston Celtics in their last couple of title runs to hating LeBron James after The Decision. Finally, just a couple of years ago, I got interested enough to end my casual team drifting and adopt the teams of my two life localities for better or worse. I started to care about the Chicago Bulls just in time to see Derrick Rose lead them in one of NBA history’s legendary postseason series against the Celtics in 2009. And, going against the grain for NBA fans in Buffalo, I also adopted the New York Knicks over Buffalo’s most common municipal basketball loyalty, the Celtics. The Knicks and Bulls are now my teams, for better or worse.
The robo-Yankees have pushed me into watching the basketball season more closely than I ever have in my life, and I’m watching the NBA playoffs with greater interest than ever. When I watched my first basketball Finals in 2003, I assumed that the NBA had been playing out in the same way as the NHL. When the New Jersey Devils began employing the Trap, other NHL teams followed because of the great success the Devils had employing it. (They won the Stanley Cup three times.) It ruined hockey until the NHL finally rid itself of the two-line pass rule in 2005. In the NBA, that wasn’t the case. The slow pace of the San Antonio Spurs was something radical, but teams weren’t following them, so it happened to merely be the style that worked for a very deep and talented Spurs team. The Spurs these days aren’t quite so boring either, now that Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have reached their full potential. This is the first year that I’m actually looking forward to the NBA Finals and watching the preceding rounds. Just in the past couple of days, I watched two epic comebacks, one by the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Los Angeles Lakers, the other by the Sixers over the Celtics. I’m caught up, and past the event horizon. There’s no going back from here.
As for the Yankees, they’ll have to get used to the backburner for now. I’m waiting for them to play the White Sox, a team that still plays exciting baseball. Otherwise, go Knicks, go Bulls.
Damone Brown, by the way, was quickly put into Philadelphia’s d-league system. When the Sixers decided they couldn’t get anything else out of him, he also played briefly for the Toronto Raptors (where he once put up 13 against Michael Jordan), New Jersey Nets, and Washington Wizards before the NBA let him go. His life since must have taken a couple of wrong turns, because the last I heard of him was on a local news broadcast earlier this year, when he was going to jail for a year due to involvement in a drug ring. I sincerely hope he gets his life rebuilt afterward, because while his career never reached the great heights of Bob Lanier or Clifford Robinson – two Buffalo natives who went on to long, immensely productive careers in the NBA – Seneca alumni will always regard him as our school’s conquering hero.